Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Notes on Satmar

Except for an occasional newspaper article, usually arising out of an incident, little attention is paid to Satmar, the chassidic group located mainly in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There were several scholarly works decades ago, but so far as I know there hasn’t been much since the passing in 1979 of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the towering figure who led Satmar for about 70 years.

Satmar is an important force in American Jewish life. At least one out of every ten yeshiva or day school students at the elementary and high school levels – 20,000 in all – is in a Satmar school and the number is growing. Keeping pace is the establishment of new synagogues and schools in Brooklyn and now also in Queens, as well as in Monroe, the suburban community forty miles outside of New York that Rabbi Teitelbaum established in the 1970’s.

The group’s extraordinary fertility rate – ten or more children in a family is not uncommon – results in constant pressure for new housing. There are several satellite communities in New York and more will be formed. In Williamsburg, chassidim are pushing into Bedford Stuyvestant, without the ethnic acrimony that has characterized relations with Hispanics on the south side of Williamsburg. Interestingly, Satmar family size is lower in Borough Park, perhaps because this is a more upscale community and in tune with a familiar pattern, socio-economic status impacts on family size.

Rabbi Teitelbaum was an intellectual giant and also charismatic and determined, qualities that were evident as he rebuilt Satmar after it had been nearly decimated in the Holocaust. He was known for his fierce opposition to Zionism and to the notion that Israel is a Jewish state, as well as for his unswerving insistence on rigorous religious standards. His views influenced other chassidic groups, but not Belz or Ger in Israel or Lubavitch, and also the yeshiva world sector of Orthodoxy. He conditioned his followers to be generous and that is a key communal trait of Satmar.

The present Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, succeeded his uncle twenty-five years ago. Now nearly 90 and ailing, perhaps his major achievement has been to keep his flock intact, this despite continuous and dangerous conflict between two sons who are jockeying to be his successor. What lies ahead may not be pretty. In a sense, Satmar has turned into quasi-autonomous fiefdoms, an arrangement that is true of several other chassidic groups.

Perhaps because of the restrained style of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, Satmar’s anti-Israel message has been muted. I sense that here and in Israel, charedim (the fiercely Orthodox) have veered toward greater acceptance of Israel, but not of Zionism. There is Neturei Karta, a fringe group that has had links to Satmar, whose hatred of Israel impels it toward making common cause with Palestinians. These odious outwardly-appearing religious Jews are willing to transgress Shabbos restrictions in order to participate in anti-Israel activities. The connection between Satmar and Neturei Karta may be tenuous, still it behooves the chassidic group to more overtly disavow support of those who break treife bread with suicide bombers.

From its inception Satmar has been enmeshed in political activity, seeking good relations with secular officials. There obviously is little ideological affinity. The tendency is to support incumbents, the idea being to swap votes – or the expectation of votes – for public benefits in housing and social services. Political activity has yielded some gains, yet for all of the perception that Satmars and, more generally, chassidim are politically sophisticated and have much clout, they aren’t astute as they go about their interactions with government. Often they come away with little, although because they go in for photo-ops and other public displays, they create the perception of being powerful.

Large families invariably beget financial hardship. There is considerable poverty among Satmars, especially in Williamsburg. Its incidence is below what some of the community’s critics and leaders claim. The Satmar economic infrastructure is substantially based on private enterprise, not governmental funds, as is evident from the great many housing units being built with private capital. Satmars benefit somewhat ironically from their strong devaluation of secular education, particularly for males, and the concurrent arrangement whereby relatively few young men remain in yeshiva more than two or three years past the high school period. As a rule, only the best students pursue an extended course of advanced religious study.

These factors plus a powerful culture of entrepreneurship result in creative and aggressive men seeking business opportunities at a young age, with quite a few succeeding and some spectacularly. There is already a large Satmar middle-class and also pockets of affluence. What has occurred bears an interesting resemblance to the American Jewish experience in the first half of the twentieth century when poverty and limited educational and professional opportunities resulted in many young Jews going into business, setting the foundation for the extraordinary economic success we have achieved on these shores.

There are no statistics of how many Satmars leave the fold, some abandoning religious life altogether, nor do we know how many remain outwardly tied to the community in dress and other practices and yet whose behavior deviates significantly from religious norms. Attrition is certainly a problem, as community leaders recognize, and this should not be surprising in view of the openness of American society and the many powerful features that may entice especially young chassidim away from religiosity.

As the third generation of Satmar life unfolds in the U.S., the pattern so far has been of a community that is holding together, in a sense via a consensus that modernity must be resisted. Whether this will be sufficient to maintain group cohesion as new challenges arise is an interesting question. But even if Satmar splits, the strong likelihood is that the overall sociological character of the group will be maintained.